Tom Peterkin: 1999 documents from a different age

Donald Dewar and Tony Blair in 1999. thousands of documents from the first year of devolution are now publicly available. Picture: TSPL

Donald Dewar and Tony Blair in 1999. thousands of documents from the first year of devolution are now publicly available. Picture: TSPL

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This week’s release of previously secret Cabinet papers chronicling the first days of devolution aroused peculiar feelings. In the past, secret documents have lain in vaults for several decades before being ruled as fit for public consumption.

Thanks to an initiative by the Scottish Government, the regulations have been relaxed and confidential documents can be declassified after just 15 years. So thousands of documents from 1999 – the first year of devolution – are now publicly available.

If not exactly from a long-distant era, those papers certainly feel as though they were.

There is an almost quaint naïvety about some of them. For example, there was the advice that Donald Dewar offered to his novice ministers to prevent the leaking of Cabinet papers.

Among the “straightforward steps” he suggested were taking care when reading them in the public chamber and ensuring that someone accompanied ministers on public transport to look after their documents.

With the benefit of 15 years of hindsight, some of the conventional wisdom of the time also seems quite naïve.

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The notion, implied in some of the documents, that Labour would lead a Scottish administration in perpetuity also has a touching innocence about it these days. And the less said about the prediction that devolution would “kill Nationalism stone dead” the better.

Since then we have had the inexorable rise of the SNP under Alex Salmond and the momentous events of the past few years, culminating in his ultimately unsuccessful bid for independence in last year’s referendum.

The tumultuous nature of more recent history means that the glimpse into the past, courtesy of the National Archives, has the feel of a trip back to simpler, less exciting times.

But for those of us who covered those early years, documents drily discussing the introduction of Freedom of Information and laws on food standards and preventing leaks all too easily give the impression that nostalgia is not quite what it used to be.

Lest we forget, the attempt to set up a stable democratic institution that represented the settled will of the Scottish people was plagued with scandal, stushies and tragedy.

The untimely death of Dewar, the soaring cost of the Holyrood building, the almighty row over Section 28, lobbying controversies and the expenses scandal that brought down Henry McLeish were just some of the big issues that marked devolution’s difficult birth.

Post-devolution politics has always been a bit of a roller-coaster. It is just that we’ve come through a series of corkscrewing hairpins in 2014.

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